As 2015 models like the Chevrolet Corvette begin to appear in dealer showrooms, the new model year delivers some completely new vehicles, a major redesign and technology that moves ahead toward the connected car.
The Jeep Renegade and Chevrolet Trax will expand the competition among very small SUVs. The most important redesign is the Ford F-150 pickup, with a weight-loss program of an aluminum cab and bed. And the introduction of so-called 4G LTE connectivity in General Motors vehicles will not only make your car into a rolling WiFi hot spot but also increase the ability to diagnose problems without visiting the dealer or a mechanic's shop.
Analyst Jeremy Acevedo of Edmunds.com says the likelihood of stable gasoline prices will continue the recent trend for strong sales of pickup trucks and large SUVs. But, he adds, "While Americans continue to flock to trucks, the industry continues to push the envelope on fuel economy to meet looming efficiency mandates with electric vehicle and plug-in hybrid technology."
Here's a closer look at five important trends of the 2015 model year.
Very small SUVs hit the market
The introduction of the Jeep Renegade and the Chevrolet Trax looks like the start of a competitive scramble in subcompact SUVs. In a category just below compact SUVs like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, these new smaller crossovers will compete with current entries like the Nissan Juke and Kia Soul.
But, predicts KelleyBlue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer, "This category will see an explosion of product in the coming years. The Honda HR-V and the Toyota equivalent are coming."
These smaller SUVs will sport lower prices and higher fuel economy than their larger siblings. General Motors has announced that the starting price of the Trax will be $20,995. The EPA ratings for the Trax are 26 MPG in city driving and 34 on the highway.
Jeep has not yet announced pricing on the Renegade, but it is expected to start around $19,000. And Chrysler Group officials have suggested the highway mileage will be around 30 MPG. The Renegade is expected to hit Jeep showrooms early next year.
Ford pickup goes on a weight loss plan
In redesigning the best-selling vehicle in America, Ford has taken a bold step. It has cut the weight by 700 pounds by switching to aluminum for the body and bed of the 2015 F-series pickup. That will mean a gain in fuel economy, which the company has not yet announced but have suggested it could approach 30 MPG on the highway.
Truck buyers may be skeptical of the toughness of aluminum. But Ford will be pitching to them that the new F-150 can carry more and tow more than its predecessor. The company said the prototype new design had been tested for more than 10 million miles, including customers who cooperated in using the pickup in construction, mining and electric utility work.
As for the future, "It's entirely possible that an aluminum F-series will start a trend," says executive editor Joe Wiesenfelder of cars.com. "Truck makers need to get the weight out, and aluminum is a straightforward way to do it." He points out that aluminum body parts and entire bodies are already used in some luxury cars.
GM moves toward connected cars
General Motors' 2015 vehicles are introducing new technology that can make your car a rolling WiFi hot spot. But this new technology represents one step toward cars that send and receive data more quickly and, eventually, to the remote fixing of problems.
The system is based on 4G LTE (for fourth generation Long Term Evolution) wireless technology that is much faster than the previous generation. Along with GM, Audi also is introducing 4G LTE in some models. "We will see 4G LTE technology expand across new car offerings over the next couple years," predicts senior analyst Karl Brauer of Kelley Blue Book. "Eventually every driver will want it and every manufacturer will supply it."
The extra speed will allow features like traffic updates to operate better, notes Joe Wiesenfelder of cars.com. "Eventually, it will allow manufacturers to update their operating systems wirelessly," he adds, noting that only Tesla can do this now. It would mean, for instance, if software needed to be updated in a recall, it could be done without going into the dealership.
New luxury hybrids appear
Lexus is bringing out a new model, the small hybrid NX 300h SUV, which will also come in a regular gasoline version. And the Mercedes-Benz C-Class will introduce a plug-in hybrid version. This follows some 2014 luxury introductions such as the BMW i3, which comes both in hybrid and all-electric versions.
The Lexus compact SUV hybrid will use the same gas/electric system which has been well reviewed in the Toyota Camry hybrid. The EPA ratings for the NX 300h are 35 MPG in city driving, 31 on the highway.
Cars.com's Joe Wiesenfelder notes that Lexus hybrids generally have been good at meeting EPA estimates. And Jeremy Acevedo of Edmunds.com says to expect continuing hybrid and electric introductions of luxury vehicles. "It's interesting to see luxury cachet once held by performance models slowly swinging toward green cars."
Safety features progress continues toward self-driving cars
New safety features in 2015 cars represent a small step toward the driverless car. Nissan and General Motors both have said they could produce an "autonomous car" by the end of the decade. And Google continues its intense research on the subject with instructions from its executives to get results within five years. Much of the technology involved -- including video cameras and radar sensors -- are already installed in some cars as a part of safety features like lane departure and collision warning.
With 2015 mainstream models adding self-correcting features like the lane-keeping assist in the highest-level 2015 Honda CR-V, that evolution takes another step.
Karl Brauer of Kelley Blue Book notes that the 2015 Ford F-150 offers radar cruise control in a full-size truck. "These technologies make up the foundation of autonomous driving," he notes. "They will quickly go from expensive options on high-end models to standard equipment on every vehicle."
That will move along the technology, but laws and regulations to allow such cars to mix with older cars on the highway may well be much farther ahead.